Maggie Fergusson interviews Ronald Harwood

Maggie Fergusson

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In 2009, Maggie Fergusson spoke to RSL Vice President Ronald Harwood (who died on 8 September 2020) about his life and career.

An hour in the company of Oscar-winning playwright Ronald Harwood is a double tonic.  First, he exudes an appetite for life that is thoroughly infectious. Then, he seems predisposed to like everyone he meets. He assumes they will like him too: ‘It’s never occurred to me that anyone could dislike me,’ he admits, pausing in the lighting of a Gauloises Blonde. ‘It’s probably very unattractive, in a way. But it’s to do with my mother’s love. She instilled in me absolute confidence in myself.’

And what confidence! In 1951, aged 17, Harwood sailed into Southampton from South Africa, alone. He carried with him £7, a letter of introduction to a Rabbi in Upper Berkeley Street, and a dream of making a life in the theatre. Today, a shelf in his womb-like, book-lined study in Kensington is crammed with tributes to his dream-come-true. They include a BAFTA (for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly); an Evening Standard Best Play Award (for The Dresser), and the Stefan Mitrov Ljubisa Prize for Harwood’s contribution to European Literature and Human Rights. And glowing amidst them all is the Oscar, won for the screenplay of The Pianist in 2002. Within 12 hours of his getting it, he explains, handing it over so that I can try it for weight, his agent had received 24 offers of work, at fees he would previously only have dreamed of. He has since written five further screenplays, and is at work on a sixth. In May, meanwhile, his plays Taking Sides and Collaboration, both of which played to rave reviews in Chichester last summer, open at the Duchess Theatre. At 74, he recognises that ‘it’s likely to be the last time I have plays on in London, and it’s a thrilling moment.’

Such good nature is rare and beguiling (unless one is Harold Pinter, who once turned on Harwood after a game of tennis and exploded, ‘the trouble with our friendship, Ronnie, is that we’ve never have a f…ing argument!’). But there is a great deal more to Ronald Harwood than rollicking bonhomie. The last time he had a play on in London, it was both a critical and a box office disaster. The reviews of Mahler’s Conversion were so savage that Harwood was plunged into depression and writer’s block such as he had never known. Every morning, as he settled down in his study to write, he found himself ‘facing a chasm’: ‘I was unable to access that part of myself that is the most profound. I was unable to do what Maggie Smith calls “dredging”.’ Because the play had opened in the aftermath of 9/11, and because, in response, many were pointing to Israel as the heart of the problem, his depression was fuelled by a visceral paranoia that, as a Jew, he had never really ‘belonged’ in England.

His paranoia is, he recognizes, largely groundless. England has been ‘wonderful’ to him, and his life is rich in indicators of English success: children at public schools, a house in the country, friendship with the Prince of Wales, membership of the Garrick. But the notion of belonging or not belonging is, he says, one that the English cannot understand, ‘because they belong’. And, for all England’s generosity to him, ‘I am not allowed to forget that I’m a foreigner’.

By the time he arrived from South Africa in the Fifties, Harwood’s roots were already well obscured. His rich, plummy, actorly voice had been acquired partly by pressing his ear to the radiogram every day after school to listen to a 78 record of Laurence Olivier reading Hamlet, and in partly from an elocution teacher, Sybil Marks (who has also taught Nigel Hawthorne). The name Harwood had been contrived for him by his Englihs master. He was born Ronald Horwitz, ‘but when I was thinking of coming overseas, to act, it was thought that one couldn’t have a foreign name.’ ‘Foreign, or Jewish?’ ‘Jewish, I suppose. Though it wasn’t put like that. And Mr Quinn said, “Harwood will do.”’

Yet one only has to look at his forthcoming brace of plays to see how the business of roots, and of identity, preoccupies him. Collaboration examines the artistic partnership between the composer Richard Strauss (played by Michael Pennington) and the Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig (David Horovitz) in the lead up to the Second World War. Zweig was a Jew, and the struggle to separate his artistic aspirations and his political beliefs drove him, ultimately, to suicide. Strauss was a quisling. Is Zweig the hero, then? Curioiusly not. Harwood feels deeply for Strauss, whose cooperation very likely saved his Jewish daughter-in-law and grandchildren from Auchwitz. But the abandonment of hope is beyond his comprehension – ‘I just can’t see it’ – and for Zweig he feels contempt.

In Taking Sides, Hitler’s favourite conductor, Wilhelm Furtwangler (Pennington), is tried after the war as a Nazi-sympathiser. He is an artistic genius, whereas his American interrogator, Steve Arnold (Horovitz), is a bully and a philistine. Yet Arnold has witnessed at first hand the horror of Belsen. In the face of that, what argument can Furtwangler make for the healing power of his art?

Here are the Harwood hallmarks: near-obsession both with moral dilemma, and with what it means to be a Jew. The latter troubles him now more than ever, because he feels that anti-semitism is on the rise: since the invasion of Gaza, he can ‘just smell it’. And at its root is something truly sinister: not justifiable outrage at Israeli behaviour in Gaza – which Harwood himself agrees became ‘savage’ – but an ancient, vicious strain of prejudice which has been given an excuse to resurface: ‘I had really hoped that that nerve had died. But it hasn’t. It hasn’t! What that invasion did was to free people to say things that they were thinking anyway!’

A part of Harwood would love to brush the whole Jewish thing under the carpet, but he can’t: ‘I remember saying to Isaiah Berlin, “I am sick of anti-semitism”. He said, “Ronnie, you mustn’t be, it defines you as a Jew”. I think he was right.’ In the course of our time together, his bewildered outrage at the current state of affairs crops up repeatedly: ‘It puzzles me that anti-semitism is most prevalent in the Liberal left. You saw signs, following the invasion of Gaza, saying, “We are Hamas!”. Hamas are genocidal, misogynist, homophobic and send young children with bombs strapped to their bodies to blow people up. And yet the liberal left were supporting an organization that stands for everything they abhor. Those same liberal lefties won’t say a word against Muslims, and they’d have you believe that is because they are broad-minded and respectful. In fact, it’s because they are cowardly: they are afraid of what might happen to them in response.’

His suspicions of the liberal left are fuelled also but by his passionate devotion to England. Since arriving in London at 17 – a city of ‘willow-herbs growing out of bomb-craters, and an atmosphere of unity and embrace’ – he has been in love with this country: ‘much more so,’ he recognises, ‘than most English people’. He loves its sense of fair play, and it’s institutions. He worries when ‘politicians take too much power to themselves, tinker with the head of state, the monarchy, the judiciary, taking more and more power to themselves’. And he believes that ‘multi-racialism, or whatever they call it now’ has been a disaster: ‘I feel that if people come in to a country, they should subscribe to it. You know, every Saturday morning, in every synagogue in England, a prayer is said for the Royal Family. I think that’s a good thing.’

This patriotism is, to some, suspect: ‘I am constantly regarded as a Fascist’. Yet those temped to pigeonhole Ronald Harwood should look to his record as a campaigner for human rights. His early writing was devoted to fighting against apartheid, and in favour of freedom of speech. In 1986, he put his life in danger to make a film about Mandela, still imprisoned on Robben Island and largely unknown. He felt deeply what Albert Lutheli, Mandela’s predecessor as leader of the ANC, called ‘the daily hurt to human beings’, and his conscience troubled him at having grown up unwittingly complicit in the oppression of black South Africans. As Leonard Lands, the autobiographical character is his play Another Time, says, ‘I was able to flourish at their expense. And for that I feel ashamed, deeply ashamed.’

But it was perhaps difficult to consider himself an oppressor when the Jewish community in Cape Town were so taken up with feeling oppressed. ‘From a small child,’ he remembers, ‘I had to ask my mother, “Why did that person call me a Dirty Jew?”’. Then, as the war came to an end, ‘a whisper’ began to spread that ‘there had been some terrible persecution’. In 1946, with other Jewish schoolchildren, he was taken to a showing of film footage from Belsen. He is momentarily lost for words as he dwells on this. ‘It was … unbelievable. I had nightmares. And it was absolutely central to my development as a person.’

All this resurfaced powerfully when, preparing to work on The Pianist, Ronald Harwood and Roman Polanski spent time together watching reels of previously unseen SS film of Nazi treatment of the Jews. ‘It was terrible – worse than the film from Belsen. We watched all day, and then went out for a huge dinner, and drank too much. We never talked about it, because it was unbearable. And I said to Roman, “you know this is what started me off: seeing this as a child”.’

But self-pity is not a part of Harwood’s nature,, and if his Jewish heritage has, in some respects, been painful for him, he recognizes that is has also been an enormous advantage. It has been the ? of his work. More profoundly, he believes, it accounts for the sense of rootedness and equanimity that one detects in his company: ‘Jews walk a tightrope between this world and the next very comfortably,’ he says. ‘They are good at this world, but they have a spiritual dimension too. So when you say you think I’m “rooted”, I think that’s what you’re detecting: that I enjoy this world, but I also have another dimension.’

He explores this dimension by making retreats with his Catholic wife, Natasha, at the Benedictine Abbey of Ampleforth in Yorkshire, getting up at 5am for Matins: ‘I love it. I look at those monks, and what has been their whole lives, and I long to know whether they experience doubt.’

And I long to know whether Ronald Harwood experiences doubt. By his desk, he keeps a photograph of himself on a Mediterranean holiday with Harold Pinter and Simon Gray: a Thespian memento mori. Is he afraid of death? ‘I think about it, but I’m not afraid of it. I’d like to believe in a life hereafter, but it doesn’t bother me, because, if I lead a decent life, I’ve no reason to fear it. It’s part of my confidence, I suppose.’ He pauses, momentarily pensive, then chuckles: ‘Eh by gum, Mags! We’ve covered the world today!’